AMD readies Opteron to challenge Intel's Itanium

Opteron: It sounds like one of Godzilla's mechanical foes, but it's actually Adavanced Micro Devices Inc.'s name for its next-generation 64-bit processor, formerly code-named SledgeHammer. And instead of challenging the big lizard, Opteron is gunning for another giant: Intel Corp.'s Itanium processor.

In addition to unveiling the name Wednesday, AMD announced that Microsoft Corp. has agreed to develop 64-bit Windows products that will work with the company's new technology. AMD expects that support to be key to the chip's successful launch in 2003.

Microsoft's support adds legitimacy to AMD's server plans, says Nathan Brookwood, senior analyst at Insight 64.

"Clearly this is a prerequisite for AMD to have any success in the entry-level server market," Brookwood said. "If you look at that particular segment, although Linux is gaining some momentum, the vast preponderance of servers are running with Windows."

AMD says it will demonstrate a two-chip Opteron system running 64-bit Windows during a shareholders' meeting tomorrow. The company has already demonstrated the chip running on Linux systems.

All the bits

Opteron will support both 32- and 64-bit computing applications. The chip uses AMD's X86-64 Instruction Set Architecture. Today's AMD Athlon XP and Intel's Pentium 4 are 32-bit processors; Intel's Itanium is a 64-bit chip that can emulate 32-bit processing.

Opteron chips will appear in one- and two-chip workstations as well as in servers that can accommodate up to eight chips, says Kevin Graf, AMD's division marketing manager for servers and workstations.

While the chip originally introduced as SledgeHammer is destined for servers and workstations, it has siblings are intended for use in desktops and even notebooks. The other member of the Hammer family-- code-named ClawHammer--will appear in desktop PCs and notebooks later this year bearing the Athlon name. The new chip, which is also capable of 32- and 64-bit computing, will have a second, as-yet-unannounced designation, just as today's Athlon is followed by XP, Graf says.

AMD has also confirmed that it will discontinue its low-end Duron chip line, a competitor to Intel's Celeron, by 2003. The company plans to market Athlon at ever-lower price points, so it no longer needs Duron.

Taking on Itanium

AMD reflects its hopes in its chip's name. Opteron come from the Latin "optimus," meaning best. The attitude can't hurt, as the chip faces an uphill battle to beat Intel's established processors in single and multiway workstations and servers. According to Graf, Opteron chips will compete with Intel's Xeon processors as well as with its Itanium chips.

Currently, server vendors who want an Intel-based 32-bit system choose the Xeon, and if they want 64-bit system they choose Itanium, he says.

AMD's single chip will compete with both, offering top-notch performance for both types of computing--and allowing companies to migrate gradually to 64-bit applications, he says. AMD will continue to offer its 32-bit Athlon MP chip for servers and workstations as well, he says.

AMD's plan sounds good on paper, but its rollout of a 64-bit chip is well behind the competition. Intel launched the first version of its Itanium last May and will unveil an improved version code-named McKinley later this year.

The first version of Itanium, code-named Merced, hasn't been a huge hit for Intel, but the next release should offer much-improved performance and technology, says Insight 64's Brookwood.

More important, all of the major server vendors have lined up to use Intel's chips, Brookwood says. Enterprise-level companies want a brand-name server, and Intel has locked up all of the major players, he says.

"AMD's biggest challenge, aside from completing the technology, is to find that credible partner," he says.

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